Directed by Phil Giordano Starring John Arcilla, Mercedes Cabral, Andrei Fajarito and Kinopi Malbas Short Film Review by Andrew Young
In certain parts of the rural Philippines, boys are not circumcised at birth. Rather, they are circumcised when they are 10 years-old. The males in this community cannot truly become men until they have gone through this coming-of-age ritual. To go uncircumcised could see you ridiculed, disregarded and diminished in the eyes of your own family, such are the perils of being Supot.
This the subject of Phil Giordano’s tightly focussed NYU Tisch thesis script, focussing on Rene-Boy (Andrei Fajarito), who isn’t too keen on having his rite-of-passage surgery, performed by his own father Itoy (John Arcilla), rock-sharpened knife in hand. Imbued with fearful reluctance by the excellent Fajarito, Rene-Boy runs away when it’s his turn, perhaps hoping everybody will take pity on him. No such luck. The shame he brings on his father and the aggressive “Supot!” cry of elder brother Kinopi see Rene-Boy eventually submit. This sounds like potentially harrowing material but it is handled with great simplicity and sensitivity by Giordano, understanding that this is not just a case of child cruelty, but a simple tradition. Traditions often last for a reason, but that does not mean they suit everyone.
Cinematographer Malay Prakash makes excellent use of the gorgeous Magallanes location, his shots of the community’s lush surroundings combining effectively with scenes of a spider fight to remind us of the importance of nature and the discussion of what is natural and what is not. Giordano’s technique in the circumcision scenes is well-judged too, taking a Hitchcockian approach of using sound and reaction rather than full-on gore to make the audience wince. He combines this with Thomas Derenzo’s hauntingly atmospheric score to help build the tension.
However, it is Giordano’s measured approach and lack of moral judgement that really leaves its mark. Supot lets the audience do the work and is perhaps all the better for it. Analysed beyond its deceptively simple narrative, Supot has rather a lot to say. Rene-Boy’s pain and torment is clear but the film’s quiet ending suggests that this event is not life-changing, it is just another of its many hardships. Itoy does not set out to violently mutilate his son, he just does what tradition demands and is annoyed when Rene-Boy fights against it. This theme of youth’s disdain for the importance placed on tradition and conformity is a well-worn path, but has rarely been shown in this way. It is not just tradition that ties Rene-Boy down – he is bombarded with this idea that he cannot “become a man” until he is circumcised, highlighting the masculinity at the film’s core. The whole film could be a metaphor for the general societal norms that men feel they must conform to in order to be seen as a “proper man”. Itoy says he is embarrassed by his son, ashamed of his apparent weakness or immaturity. Yet when the boys are told to strip, Rene-Boy shows an awareness of his own nakedness that, when considered with his ability to think for himself, showcases an ironic maturity that the other boys lack.
It is worth asking why Rene-Boy is quite so reticent. Is it just a fear of the pain? Or is Rene-Boy just wanting to be different? Or is it because he doesn’t feel ready to become a man? A single expression can change one’s reading of a scene or even a whole film. Here, Rene-Boy has a look of blankness and minor confusion after he is circumcised. He is left disappointed at “becoming a man” because he does not really feel any different. It’s as if he is asking, “Is that it?” after being shamed, tormented and forced to go through physical pain for the sake of other people’s expectation of his character.
Heavy stuff, but expertly handled.